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Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership (CISL)

Virtual learning

7 May 2020 – Dr Louise Drake, Fellow at the University of Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership (CISL) and Course Director for the Master’s in Sustainability Leadership, reflects on the success of delivering CISL's graduate courses in a virtual format, and the acceleration of CISL’s digital capabilities that have opened up new opportunities for teaching and learning to deliver the future we want.

"This was one of the most engaging online learning activities I have done. The speakers were wonderful, our moderators were fantastic and the team ensured everything went smoothly."

Monica Kwok, PwC, Hong Kong

On 1 January 2020, Wuhan Municipal Health Commission reported a cluster of unusual cases of pneumonia; possibly a novel coronavirus. At that stage, no one was discussing Covid-19 and yet now, only a few months later, phrases such as social distancing, lockdown and Zoom bombing are part of our daily vocabulary. The ‘roaring 20s’ were put on hold before they had barely begun; a new era was upon us. 

In early March, we were preparing to welcome 120 students from over 20 different countries to Cambridge for two residential teaching weeks: one for the Master’s in Interdisciplinary Design for the Built Environment (IDBE) and one for the Master’s in Sustainability Leadership. As part-time graduate education, these face-to-face weeks are an important part of our blended programmes that also include distance learning. Yet it was becoming increasingly clear that with the Covid-19 situation evolving rapidly, lockdown was just around the corner. With just days to go for IDBE, and two weeks for Sustainability Leadership, we decided to pivot to an entirely virtual delivery model that worked across at least ten different time zones.

"The best workshop by far. Despite moving the workshop online - the experience was absolutely awesome."

Shobha Rao P., Consultant, India

As educators, we pour months into designing our teaching workshops. The face-to-face time is a precious part of the learning experience. We seek to create highly interactive and creative environments where students can engage candidly with multi-disciplinary experts, participate in group projects, and enjoy plentiful opportunities for peer learning. In one workshop alone, we had 60 academics and thought-leaders lined up to participate. The task of liaising with everyone was enormous, but we were determined to deliver the quality of learning that is expected of a world-class programme. 

Despite the scale of the challenge, there were reasons for confidence. We already deliver significant parts of each Master’s online. Our students are used to connecting virtually and are passionate enough to make it work well. Our contributors are committed and adaptable enough to rework their usual content for a virtual format. The Institute’s new short online courses have significantly enhanced our digital capacities. What was important was that we took these to the next level, designing an intensive learning experience that delivered everything expected of a face-to-face workshop: intellectual stimulation, critical thinking, practical impact, enhanced relationships, seamless logistics…and all with a ‘Cambridge’ feel. 

Online classes tweet

It was so encouraging to see such a great number of students who felt the quality of the learning experience exceeded their expectations. Across the two Master’s, we held candid fireside chats with thought-leaders, an “innovation showcase” with quick fire presentations, a live group project exploring retrofitting a Cambridge College, breakout discussions with experts, small-group supervisions, and a multi-stream assessed dissertation research conference. We held regional tutorials for those in different time zones, set up virtual research support clinics, and created an online “meet-and-mingle” for students to meet prospective dissertation supervisors. 

An integral part of any graduate programme and, in particular the residential week, is the time spent together – building communities that last beyond the end of the programme. “I loved seeing the students’ creativity in creating a sense of community”, remarked IDBE Course Director Dr Kayla Friedman, “They held working lunches, online socials, a virtual Cambridge Pub Crawl complete with backdrops of favourite city drinking spots, and an online Gala Dinner”. In fact, the digital experience has prompted new ideas for staying connected, for example virtual coffee mornings to share progress with dissertation research, and regular peer learning sessions to share insights from different sectors and geographies.  

"I came in expecting that it would be more difficult to stay engaged and that wasn't the case. The content was relevant, inspiring and thought-provoking."

Lauryn Drainie, Vancity Community Investment Bank, Canada

Reflecting on the whole experience, Director of Graduate Programmes Dr Theo Hacking says, “I believe that responding to the implications of the pandemic has not only accelerated our digital capabilities, but also enhanced best practice across all our education”. As the team has reflected on how best to nurture a virtual learning community, a number of foundational elements have been reinforced: thoughtful and clear learning design, multiple learning formats and intensities, and outstanding facilitation to create inclusive and stimulating spaces to learn. We have also been prompted to experiment with new tools for audience engagement, group work and creative thinking, which has enhanced our skill set as educators. 

The last few months have given us all pause for thought in many different areas. As educators, we look forward to the time when we can re-engage face-to-face, and cherish the opportunity for dialogue, discussion and relationship. But we will also emerge with a fuller knowledge of what it is possible to achieve with technology, in expanding our reach and enabling participants from all over the world to engage meaningfully with the debates that matter most, in an energising context, in ways that are flexible and convenient.

Covid-19 might have put some things on hold, but it certainly won’t stop our students catalysing new thinking and solutions to ‘build back better’ and deliver the future we want. 

Learn more about our graduate programmes. Applications for programmes starting in 2021 are now open.

About the author

Dr Louise DrakeDr Louise Drake has a passion for supporting current and future business leaders to respond to some of the most pressing global leadership challenges and opportunities. She is currently one of the course directors and an academic tutor for the CISL Master’s in Sustainability Leadership. Louise lectures and supervises on a range of topics relating to sustainability and leadership (including leadership theory, the history of sustainability, large-scale behaviour change, social entrepreneurship, food systems, waste planning and management), and supports the High Impact Leadership online programme.


This blog included input and support from Elodie Cameron, CISL Programme Manager.



Staff articles on the blog do not necessarily represent the views of, or endorsement by, the Institute or the wider University of Cambridge.


Zoe Kalus, Head of Media  

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